The BBC Big Band came into existence in 1964 when the BBC Variety Orchestra and BBC Revue Orchestra were amalgamated creating the BBC Radio Orchestra. The Big Band made up the orchestra's brass, reed and rhythm sections. However, the BBC Big Band's origins lie in the earliest days of the BBC when the BBC Dance Orchestra was formed in 1928 under the leadership of Jack Payne before Henry Hall (bandleader) took over in 1932.
In the 1950s the format and purpose of the BBC Dance Orchestra was changed and it became a big band with strings in the Billy May style, known as the BBC Showband, under the leadership of Cyril Stapleton. The band, featuring many British jazz stars, began to be used widely in television in the company of homegrown talent, including a then unknown Matt Monro, and with international stars such as Frank Sinatra and Nat 'King' Cole.
The BBC Big Band came into being when the Showband was dissolved, and the smaller Revue and Variety Orchestras were combined to form a large flexible studio ensemble known as the BBC Radio Orchestra in the Nelson Riddle / Henry Mancini mode, with a full jazz Big Band and symphonic strings. The various sections of the Radio Orchestra, prefixed A-D, could be used for different kinds of recordings and the "C1" section of the Radio Orchestra was known as the BBC Radio Big Band. The orchestra was directed by Malcolm Lockyer, joined by various arrangers and guest conductors, including Barry Forgie in 1977, who remains the big band's Musical Director to this day.
For the most part it has been a standard sized big band, comprising Four Trumpets, Four Trombones, Five Saxophones (all of whom double on various reed and wind instruments) and a Rhythm Section of piano (doubling keyboards), guitar, double bass (doubling bass guitar), drums and percussion (including vibes and Latin instruments). For various projects the band has also seen regular augmentation with additional instruments including French horns, tubas, extra wind and on occasion large groups of strings (effectively recreating the line up of the BBC Radio Orchestra).
The BBC Radio Big Band was also complimented by similar ensembles throughout the UK, including the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra in Manchester and the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra in Glasgow (which was also known as the Radio Scotland Big Band).
The band was used across a very wide variety of BBC Radio programmes, notable examples including "Jazz Parade", "Saturday Swings" and "Saturday Night", acompanying singers and performing instrumental versions of popular tunes. Though staffed with many strong jazz soloists, the band had little dedicated jazz output and was used primarily as a light-music ensemble. But in 1979 a significant development took place which led to the band establishing its identity as a dedicated jazz orchestra when Big Band Special took to the airwaves. Originally commissioned as a series of 12 shows, such was the impact made by the BBC Big Band in this show that the run was extended. So much so that over 30 years later, Big Band Special remains an important part of Monday night listening on BBC Radio 2 and is one of the station's only year-round jazz programmes. It is presented by jazz singer and broadcaster Clare Teal.
In a shake up of musical policy at the BBC, the corporation disbanded the BBC Radio Orchestra in 1991, but retained the Big Band. But in 1994 the BBC once again announced that it had decided to dismantle the Big Band. However, due to overhwhelming public opposition to the decision  an agreement was reached whereby the band would continue to exist, but would be managed outside the BBC and its musicians would be freelance rather than BBC staff. As well as continuing its Big Band Special programme, the band now also appears frequently on Friday Night is Music Night on Radio 2 has a BBC Radio 3 home on Jazz Line Up, appears frequently at the BBC Proms, and can be heard frequently on BBC Radio Scotland's Jazz House programme. It also reaches worldwide audiences through the BBC World Service, satellite radio and the Internet . The BBC Big Band has been voted the best Big Band in the British Jazz Awards in 1992, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2007.
The band has played with jazz stars such as Van Morrison, Michael Buble, Tony Bennett, George Shearing, Michel Legrand, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, Lalo Schifrin, Dr. John, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, Jack Bruce, Ed Thigpen, Monty Alexander, Norma Winstone, Clark Terry, Amy Winehouse, Koop, Claire Martin, Ian Shaw, Lea Delaria, Manhattan Transfer, Buddy Greco, Phil Woods and New York Voices. The band regularly features on the UK jazz festival circuit, and concert tours with major artists have taken the band all over the world in addition to its regular concert recordings throughout the UK for BBC Radio.
The band has also been conducted by such such luminaries of the big band and jazz world as Billy May, Robert Farnon, Les Brown, Tommy Watt, Angela Morley, Stan Tracey, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Russo, Gerald Wilson, Roy Hargrove, Thad Jones, John Clayton, Brian Fahey, Steve Gray, Bob Florence, Sammy Nestico, Jiggs Whigham, Mark Nightingale and Steve Sidwell. The band is also directed on occasions by its longstanding baritone saxophonist Jay Craig.
Since 2007 the BBC Big Band has been an Associate Ensemble at Birmingham Town Hall, performing regularly in concert and participating in community and education projects.